Thursday, December 29, 2016

Perfect Love for an Imperfect Christmas Eve and Christmas

Will You Take Jesus Home?  

Old Testament: Isaiah 9:2-7  
Epistle: Titus 2:11-14 
Gospel: Luke 2:1-14, (15-20) 

Take a deep breath. Try to let a smile fill your face. I know how busy you have been all day, and I know that very few of us are even finished yet. There are still packages to wrap, food to prepare, a checklist running in our heads of things that need to get packed, people to greet; Lord, this Christmas time is busy. 

It has been hard to make time to think about Jesus today. After all, it is just a celebration of his birth, and we do not know the actual date the baby Jesus was born. What should we think anyway? 

We might think symbolically. A baby is a symbol of life. A baby is a reminder of the promise of tomorrow. A baby is an invitation to see the world with fresh eyes. As we raise children, we revisit wonder, and imagination, and the roots of our beliefs. 

The prophet Isaiah, who has walked through so much of this season with us, proclaims that a child is born. This child is the one who will make the world a better place. This is the child that will disturb the status quo and usher in peace, and justice and hope; all of which are in short supply on December 24th, 2016. Let us pause for a moment to consider the possibility of peace, justice and hope breaking into our “real world.” 

The evangelist Titus says God will train us to renounce all selfish ambitions, and become zealous for good deeds. A good part of what we come to church for is to inspire and be inspired to do good deeds. Church people, as imperfect as we all are, are also among the most likely folks to be invested in projects and groups that do good deeds for others. This night, as we take the time to pause in our busy-ness, we allow the thought of Emmanuel, God-with-us, training us to align our hearts with the values long expressed by the prophets of old. 

And our reliable friend Luke provides the telling of the birth narrative. Last week we laughed - that Matthew’s account holds a few important ideas, but it lacked the drama and embellishments required to build a meaningful and emotional Christmas Eve service. So even in the year of Matthew, we pull out the gospel of Luke. 

The story is familiar, but in the quiet of the evening, when the decorative lights twinkle, when the light of the Advent and Christ candles can actually be perceived, maybe we can get in touch with the God who gives us hope for our souls, hope for our community, hope for a world where peace, and justice can live and breathe and inspire good works breaking out all around the world. 

This is where symbolism gives way to reality. Maybe all goodness has not died. Maybe, God will inspire the hearts of humanity to care for one another. This event that we celebrate is not an escape from reality. The entire point is that God does not hide from reality in a perfect heaven, waiting to reward a select few perfect souls. 

There are no perfect souls, but there is perfect love. Perfect love sets aside the need for perfection in order to be present - God with us - in this real and imperfect world. God does not appear with power, majesty and intimidation. Lets be honest folks; power, majesty and intimidation are the artifacts of selfishness and greed. 

This night is set aside in our faith tradition to sit in the quiet and contemplate the very real love God has for creation. God loves all of creation. God understands that this life is imperfect. 

The infant is born to an unwed mother, away from home, in a borrowed stable. We do not know what happens to Joseph, the parent of Jesus, but he is written out of the script early in the life of Jesus. Perfect love does not depend on power, majesty and intimidation. Just saying. 

It helps us to remember these things. It helps us to remember that Jesus did not come to start a new religion, even though the Christian religion is the most visible way of finding the tradition of Jesus in the world. It helps to remember that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love for all of Creation; not only for the Christians, and not only for people. 

We are people of faith because we have experienced the presence of God in our lives. We believe in God, because we know that goodness still is alive in this world. We look at these ancient scriptures, to learn how and where to look for the presence of God, the God-with-us, that helps us to endure anxiety, tragedy, pain, and disappointment. 

We come together to inspire each other to be faithful, and to pray for each other. I often remark how God seems to respond more quickly and effectively when I pray for the concerns of others - than when I pray for my own concerns. We all know individuals who have a great God-connection. If you get on their prayer list, good things happen. We can all be that for each other. 

In just these simple ways, the quiet remembering of a child born reminds us of; the power of love, and the power of prayer, and the power of community. 

Having a child born 2000 years ago and far away, changes nothing. But when the presence of that Christ, leaves here tonight with you, the whole world begins to change. 

So may God bless you. May you be aware of the presence of God, a presence that gives you a sense of peace in anxious moments. May God grant you the vision to see the blessings you prayed for - evident in the lives of those around you. And may God make you a blessing to others, which is the most effective way I know - to live a life of peace and love. Merry Christmas! May the peace of God, the blessings of God, the very presence of God, the God we best know through Jesus - go home with you tonight, and accompany each step you take from this day forward. Amen.  

A Christmas Confidence 

Epistle: Titus 3:4-7  
Gospel: Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20 

May the deep peace of Christmas, the day we set aside to mark the presence of God here among us, rest on you gently. May you be inspired to be hopeful, and a source of hope to those around you. May you be inspired to seek grace and recognize blessings, as your attitude has a profound effect on your family, your neighbors and your co-workers. 

When we look around the space of our lives, and try to name our blessings, blessings seem to appear. When we live, expecting God to be present, we become aware of the holiness that surrounds us. 

I have been promising that 20-page sermon for this morning, but I know none of you believed I would actually do that. I was going to prove you wrong, but maybe another time. 

Instead, we will sing songs of joy. We will think about not only the birth of the infant Jesus, but think about putting on our Party Clothes to celebrate the Second Coming of the Christ Child, to usher in - the Kingdom of God, the world without end. God with us, means one thing on a Christmas morning, but will have a totally different meaning on that glorious day when Christ comes again. 

In our preparation for Christmas we came face to face with our own failures and sinfulness, and visualized ourselves as the good thief, not asking for what we deserve, but instead asking for love and forgiveness. More than anything else, it is in our humble awareness of our failures - that qualifies us for God’s love and forgiveness. 

As critical thinkers, we know that our lives are an imperfect model of God’s perfect love. We hesitate to offer ourselves as an example, especially in a small town, where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business. 

But the truth that is exposed today, is that we can cheerfully claim to represent God’s love, because we are not alone. God is with us. The presence of the all-powerful God is expressed in perfect love, that chose to dwell among the imperfect in the world. We step forward, not because our lives can pass inspection, but because the name Jesus means, “God Saves,” and Emmanuel means “God with Us.” 

In our humility, and in our confession of sin, we are rewarded with the peace of Christ; we are gifted with abundant blessings to share; we are compelled by our joyful acceptance of forgiveness, to share with other sinners. There is no need to let sin isolate us from the community and the presence of God. The coming of Christ to Creation, first as the infant Jesus; and then when the time is complete, as the redeeming Savior; makes the whole Creation a sacred place, and blesses everything and everyone that is in it.  

Confident that God is with us, we can preach and teach love and forgiveness, even as we stand with those who need forgiveness. Confident that God is with us, we can recognize and share blessings, even as those who depend on blessings. Confident that God is with us, we continue our praise and singing, even with tired and imperfect voices. Amen. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Not Meeting Expectations

Not Meeting Expectations 

Old Testament: Psalm 146:5-10  
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11  

So, what are you waiting for? The choir sang last week that they are Waiting for a King. The Jews are waiting for a Messiah. But when Jesus of Nazareth came, he did not meet their expectations. If the truth be told, John the Baptist was skeptical, because Jesus did not meet his expectations either. 

John’s life was notable for his self-discipline and self-denial. He wore rough clothes, he ate an extreme diet, he lived out on the fringes of town. Jesus seems a bit too - shall we say social, - eating with anyone and everyone. He does not seem to be a hermit, gathering a close circle of buddies to travel with. He does not come down hard enough on the sinners. John wonders, is it possible Jesus is NOT the one? 

Matthew’s gospel is very clear, Jesus does not start his public ministry until John is arrested. Herod, the son of Herod the Great, has John arrested because he was making a public spectacle of the Herod’s great sin of stealing his brother’s wife - Herodius. The prophet makes the King nervous by broadcasting his most obvious of sins. Some leaders have very thin skins. 

It has been suggested that perhaps John was expecting Jesus to free the prisoners - maybe he could start with releasing the prophet. I think it is more likely that the baptizer expected the Messiah to be more in his own style of self-denial and overt personal piety. In Matthew’s gospel, John is the first of many Matthew will fault for not ‘converting’ to Jesus. 

So Jesus of Nazareth is not the warrior-King the Jews were waiting for. Jesus is not the ultimate aesthetic that John was expecting. Are you ready to let God be God, and learn from Jesus what that means? 

When I was much younger, I had very clear and strong feelings about what was good public policy and what was not. Having a clear and unclouded vision made my passions easy to express. 

Not too many years later, I was on the operating staff of a nuclear power plant, and there was an emotional push back from the public as early press releases tried to equate the catastrophe of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster with the mishap at Three Mile Island. TMI does not make a blip on the scale of the Chernobyl event. I discovered the world of nuance, and complexity. I learned that knowledge does not change values, but it does change the way evaluations are made and properly expressed. 

We are called to a mature faith. When we let the God of heaven and earth ‘be God’, then we see the limited expectations of the world. We learn to hold mystery, complexity, and even ambivalence, holding apparently opposite values as true at the same time, within our awareness. We learn to live with the creative tension of multiple truths. 

John the Baptist was a great prophet who spoke the truth. We know how his story ended. On Herod’s Birthday there was a great party. Herod’s step-daughter entertained with a dance. The likely inebriated King offered her a great reward. Her mother prompted her to ask for the head of the prophet, John the Baptist. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness was silenced as a gift to a dancing teen. The sublime and the ridiculous, are held together in one reality. 

We are mature enough to know that such injustice is not new, and lives on, even in otherwise civilized places. The arrest and murder of the innocent baptizer, is a model of the confrontation that awaits the savior. 

In our humility, we recognize that salvation comes from the forgiveness of sins, large and small. Jesus promises that the repentant thief will be in paradise with him. So our reward will not likely be measured by the success of this world, even any success we might claim in self-denial and purity.  

I heard the story recently of the boy who desperately wanted a bright and shiny new bicycle. He prayed very earnestly to God to give him what he wanted. In time though, the boy realized that God was not like that; not a Santa Claus, not a genie in a bottle. So, he stole the bike, and then prayed for forgiveness. 

The real God does not turn away from the suffering. The real God, is not aloof and demanding extreme self-denial and overt purity. The real God expects us to ascribe to the values proclaimed by the prophets of old, and demonstrated by Jesus. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, standup for the orphan and the widow, provide healthcare for the aged and infirm. These are the kinds of things that the prophets have always promoted. 

John sends followers to Jesus to ask, “So, are you the one, or not?” And Jesus answers, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 

We have an advantage over John the Baptist and his followers. We know how the story of Jesus plays out over the next years of his public ministry. We understand what the politicians and religious authorities of his day are unable to understand. We have seen how kind words and good works can be misrepresented and used to justify capital punishment and other lawful atrocities.

A mature faith holds all of that, and at the same time, welcomes the appearance of the invisible God in the real world. A baby is coming, the perennial symbol of God committing to creation not only in this life, but providing a gateway to the life without end. We actually welcome the promise of Christ’s return to open that new world, that new life, that new kingdom. 

Are we mature enough to hold both realities in our hearts at one time? We see the kingdom of this world, and its fascination with power over others and self-promotion. And at the same time, we commit to living out the values long ago voiced by the prophets: feeding the hungry, caring for the refugees, protecting the widow and the orphan. 

The kingdom of God breaks through when the door opens a crack, as hearts full of God’s love do their thing. As Christians, we best know our God through Jesus of Nazareth, even when we see his name and heritage misunderstood and misappropriated. Not everything some claim to do in the name of Christ, is rooted in the values declared by the prophets of old. 

We know that God loves all of creation. We have brothers and sisters who best know God through other cultures and religious formulas. When we find them honoring similar ancient values, we know that God is working through them to bring the kingdom of God into this world. 

  The God of Jesus is the key to the knowledge that feeds our growing awareness and wisdom. Through Jesus the Christ the checklist of expectations is reversed; from evaluating the Christ, to the self-examination of ourselves as would-be followers. Do we accompany the lonely? Do we live with peace in the face of creative tension? Can we perceive the logical fallacies that cloud the facts and the truth? Are we able to persist, when all of the world seems infatuated with latest fad? 

As we reflect on the values of a mature faith, and note that in so many ways we ourselves are a work in progress and have not yet arrived, we do not lose hope. Instead, we claim our deficiencies, and pray for forgiveness. And even as we pray, we know to expect love and forgiveness means - we have to return that bicycle. Amen. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Where Hearts Are Remanufactured

Where Hearts Are Remanufactured 

Old Testament: Isaiah 11:1-10  
Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12 

Last week we lit the candle of Hope. The virtue of Hope is confessing to believe in an outcome that cannot be predicted by the current status - or the events of the past. 

This week we light the candle of Faith or Peace. It would not be hard to construct an argument that says there is no evidence that this world is capable of peace. The armed forces of the USA have been engaged in continual conflict for 15 years, with no end in sight. 

Casting a critical eye on a nation in a state of war presents the opportunity to see some harsh realities. War increases taxes. Heads of government love increased cash flow. War permits an exalted view in the authority of the administration. Presidents and the congress love to have greater power. War diminishes the priority of correcting domestic social ills. Paying for ammunition and weapons feed the rich owners of the military-industrial complex. It is easy for the federal government to become addicted to the exercise of war powers. 

The prophet Isiah preaches a peaceable Kingdom, lions with lambs, children with their hands in a pit of snakes, and a part of our brain dismisses this from the practical reality of the world as we know it. Sometimes the poetic utterances of the prophets are too fanciful for the real world. Frankly, too much of this talk, and a lot of men stop attending Sunday Services. 

Part of the message of John the Baptist comes from his counter-cultural dress, diet and attitude. He is his own man and not to be confused with the scribes and the teachers of the law. In fact, John would be the first to tell you that the law has no useful guidance for encountering the living God. 

So Houston, we have a problem. The Advent Season is all about the spirit of the invisible God making a bodily appearance in the real world. The arrival of the one we call the Prince of Peace, is anticipated by those of us who know the world as a place of war. We know that lions gladly and willingly will eat little lambs, whether they are actual lions in the wilderness, or they are multi-national corporations. We have come to believe that conflict is a natural state of existence. 

So let us be as clear as we can. Isaiah was preaching as the nation of Israel was preparing for war; a war that they were going to lose. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah were quite clear that things were not going to go well for the people of Zion. God was not pleased with the state of their relationship with God, and the way they were treating each other and their neighbors. 

John the Baptist was also calling for a radical change in behavior of the people in an occupied nation. The baptizer wanted folks to commit to bearing the fruit of repentance. He also suggested that those who failed to change would be chopped down and thrown into the fire. Oddly, we do not have shiny little axes to hang on our Christmas trees. 

To repent is not to wallow in guilt and self-pity for all of the things we have done wrong. Actually to repent means to change your life. Do things differently. Make a commitment to doing good wherever you go, helping and honoring your neighbors, being a peacemaker. 

The theme that reverberates through this time of waiting is that this is the time to repent. The church is a place for sinners. But the church should not be a warehouse for sorry souls waiting to be delivered by a prince on a white horse. 

The church should be a place where our hearts are remanufactured to be full of God’s love. When we live full of love, we laugh easily, we take the love of God seriously, and our own sense of pride not too seriously at all. We are waiting to have our hearts remade to be a larger size, to hold more of God’s love. Each year, like the Grinch of Dr. Seuss, we are encouraged to grow a little bit more than we were able to grow last year. 

To repent in our political lives, would be to require our government officials to reimagine the world, where we reserve armed conflict for only the worst and most desperate of situations. We need to divorce ourselves from requiring every sense of moral outrage be accompanied by violent intervention. 

This would be a radical change. This would take persistent, articulate, and willful pressure from a mature electorate. This is what it would look like if our spiritual awareness would be evident in the way we engage the world. We would have to bear the fruit of repentance. 

The Jews have trouble accepting Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish Messiah, because their hearts were set on a warrior-king, in the model of King David, the first generation shoot from the sump of Jesse. They dreamed of a time when they were not in Exile or under occupation. 

John the Baptist declared that the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. These are the images we associate with Pentecost. The presence of God - resting among us as the Holy Spirit - and enflaming our attitudes to carry that presence of God into the world. The embodiment of the invisible God, changes the world, through contact with the remanufactured souls of repentant church members, grown to a new size and enflamed anew.  

The problem is that a lot of our church language is devoted to honoring the coming Jesus on a pedestal. Waiting for Jesus to save us, and save the day. Old Isaiah and John the Baptist have a word for you, the time has come to live in a new way. 

“Even now, the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” We wait for the appearance the savior, but we need not wait to change ourselves. Our time is now. Amen. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Anticipation Beats Anxiety

Anticipation Beats Anxiety 

Old Testament: Isaiah 2:1-5 
Epistle: Romans 13:11-14   
Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44  

How do you feel about the end of the world coming soon? Luke warned us in the reading from last week that at some point, Jesus would return, and there would be a new world order. That world order would not be a democracy, but would be a world of peace with the shared love of God evident in every aspect of our awareness. 

We begin Advent preparing for the invisible God being apparent in a physical way; both in the birth of the infant Jesus, and especially in these early weeks, the return of Jesus at the end of the age. 

This week my son-in-law released a recording of one of his most recent compositions for symphonic band. The piece is a nocturne, evoking the middle of the night feelings. He has two infant sons who provide him many opportunities to be awake for the middle of the night experience. In the quiet of the dark night, the wonder of new life in his arms he senses the endless possibilities both evoke: some fear - for all that is unable to be controlled; and some excitement - for all the joy that is just beginning to unfold. 

As the child begins to crawl, everything within a foot of the floor suddenly becomes a potential danger. Even the hot oven presents a potential threat. But we do not want the child to stop progressing. And we still have to eat. 

As the child develops verbal skills, there are cranky days as teeth begin to break through the gum line. There can seem to be so little we can do to provide real relief. And the poor child has no idea what is driving him crazy. But we cannot develop without passing through this time as well. 

All of life contains these steps of progression. We confront pain and discomfort moving through the stages of change that define real life. It does not come to an end when we are infants. Even mature adults confront a series of challenges. In the church, pastoral change evokes uncertainty. Choosing a pastor to walk into the rapidly changing future, is hard when you cannot guess what skills might be the most useful. 

In a personal sense, our more mature days are better characterized by a series of losses. Our hair thins, our hearing weakens, our balance cannot be trusted to be the same day after day. Change is by itself unnerving. 

Our spiritual awareness is a part of our living. As our minds and emotions are stirred by the events of the world, we are distracted from the promises of God. There is anxiety over the proposed radical changes with a new president-elect. We can easily spend more energy on worry and anxiety than we ought to. Into our spiritual awareness breaks the season of Advent. 

In the last twenty years or so, this text from Matthew has been promoted as a foundational piece of the “Left Behind” series. In that series of novels, the apocalyptic texts of the Bible are interpreted as a prediction of “The Rapture” where select individuals are taken up into paradise, while the those left behind endure a dramatic series of hardships. 

This kind of elitism is a recurring problem for all religions. There is a powerful human hunger to lord it over others, define holiness in such a way as to exclude others, and make the insiders feel special. The final words we heard from Luke last week, encouraged us to keep our own sinfulness in mind, seeking the salvation of forgiveness that Jesus so readily dispenses to the humble and repentant.  

So what could Matthew be talking about if not “The Rapture?” Advent is the beginning of a new church year. As we follow along in the Revised Common Lectionary, we follow a three year cycle of readings with a year devoted to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We are entering into the year of Matthew. 

The focus of this passage is to emphasize that there are no markings that the end is near, so it is not wise to try to time our repentance with the grand finale. With that thought in mind, we should turn to God right now, because anytime, any day, could bring the end of the world as we know it. 

We opened with a reading from First Isaiah, preaching before the defeat and Exile imposed by the Babylonians. Much of Old Isaiah is a call to give up your love of sin, make room for God within, and learn to believe God is good. Here, Isiah offers a sense of the ideal; an understanding of God, not as a punishing God, but a God of wisdom. This image of God is the one who arbitrates peace, and brings out the best in all of the people from all over the world. Here we see Zion as the embodiment of the ideal relationship between God and all of humanity. Embodiment is another word for incarnation. 

In Romans, Paul tells us that this is the hour to become aware and attentive to the coming of the Kingdom of God. We are closer now to the kingdom than we have been at any time in our lives. 

These words, now almost 2,000 years old, seem to lack the sense of immediacy that characterized Paul’s frantic ministry. Paul was driven by the sense that Jesus would return within his lifetime. Paul was compelled by the need to turn all nations to Christ, so that everyone would enjoy the coming salvation. 

You and I arrive at Advent, and our enthusiasm is quieted by the intervening years. Yes, the end might be near, but based on the experience of 2,000 years of waiting, it seems like we ought to pay the premium on our health insurance. 

Having said all of that, we should take it a step further. We are not likely to achieve perfection in our lives. It then becomes important for us to maintain a position of humility and repentance in prayer before our God. 

The ideal of nations traveling to the holy mountain in Jerusalem in order to have differences arbitrated in peace, seems counter intuitive, knowing how the sacred mount of Jerusalem is so hotly contested by the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims. The physical reality of today mocks the wisdom of these ancient scriptures.   

But we know that nothing on earth lasts forever. There is no turn of politics or economies that is not subject to radical change. Issues that seem insurmountable and divisive, may not even seem important ten years from now. The reality of the life of a creature is lived within the context of short-term awareness. 

Let us turn our attention to the divine and the infinite. The God who is, was, and ever will be, is likely amused by all of those things that make us so anxious. God may be amused that we cannot understand the temporary nature of this existence, while offering us the grace to be faithful. 

I believe that grace is the power to put a cap or limit on our anxiety, trusting that God’s love is sufficient to promote a spiritual awareness that includes this eternal God, and anticipates our own personal and communal relationship with that God. 

Just as life with infants reveals both danger and hope, we contemplate the end of the age, that both seems uncontrolled and terrifying and the embodiment of the promises made for thousands of years to the faithful. 

Our own lives are lived within a sea of anxiety promoting realities. My own response is to intentionally focus my heart and mind on the spiritual ideal. Rather than spend all of my attention on the divisions that complicate the physical reality of Jerusalem, I focus some healthy part of my prayer attention, on the glory of Jesus returning to bring that sense of peace and joy. 

Faith is the antidote to the sin of anxiety. Confidence that God will clothe us in Glory Robes, and be pleased as we approach the throne, puts a joyful note in our songs and prayers. Our season of preparing for the coming of the presence of God in an embodied human form, should call us to remember to trust in God, and rejoice in the peace that the Christ brings, today, and every day in the future, world without end, Amen. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Jesus As the Life Force

Jesus As the Life Force  

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 
Psalm 100 
Philippians 4:4-9 
John 6:25-35 

It is only appropriate to begin with a word of thanks, to Pastor Anne, for generously pulling all of this together. And thanks to the good folks at United Presbyterian for inviting us over for Thanksgiving. We appreciate your welcome and hospitality. At least half of us here understand what it is like to clean the house for company in the middle of the week, no less. 

We live in anxious times. We are fed by the perpetual noise of the for-profit media. The advertising machine did not sputter out of gas - after drowning us all in negative political ads, although by all that is good, holy, and just, it ought to have poisoned itself. The artificial pressure to create the perfect Christmas Season, highlighted by the perfect Christmas gifts, has already kicked into high gear. 

Jesus, who had left the crowds by the cover of night to find a quiet place to pray and get recharged, has been discovered by the hungry crowds and their spokespersons. “How did you get away from us?” they ask him. Jesus responds, “As usual, you are asking the wrong question, worried about the wrong things, and focused on the here and now from your own narrow perspective.” 

The conversation takes place in the gospel of John, Chapter 6. This entire Chapter reflects on the miracle story of the feeding of the 5,000, and the walking on water event for the benefit of the disciples. Now, I am not one that likes to dwell on the miraculous. As a modern person, enamored of reason and scientific inquiry, I occasionally get anxious about the places the miracle stories take me. 

But this feeding of the 5,000 is not a story I can dismiss. It is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels, and Mark and Matthew each tell it twice! There is no getting around it, this story is at the heart of the gospel understanding of the public ministry of Jesus. 

It helps to reflect on the feeding of the 5,000, the night before the family arrives for Thanksgiving. Did you notice, in all of the different tellings, no one complained about the menu. There were no snide remarks about who brought a purchased side dish and who made their own. And no one complained about the ‘easy’ pumpkin pie instead of Grandma’s famous spiced recipe. 

Most of us gathered tonight are church people. We are the dedicated core of our respective congregations who do not need to be reminded to go to church on Sunday. We volunteer for projects, and accept invitations to be responsible for “church stuff.” We all know that the heart of the congregation, like the heart of a family home, is located in the kitchen, surrounded by the smell of the oven and handy to the coffee pot. Community is built making and serving food, and doing dishes together. 

In a sense tonight is like preaching to the choir. Tex Sample, the renowned teacher of preachers, says clergy should not be afraid to preach to the choir once in a while. I think of Jesus walking on water for the benefit of the disciples in the same way, preaching to the choir. This event takes place in John’s gospel, right after the “Big Meal.”  It honors the extra effort the insiders make to their relationship with Jesus, and it feeds their own hunger to know more. 
Tex Sample likes say, “Go ahead and preach to the choir, because the choir is where a lot of the trouble starts anyway.” Tex might advise a little caution in this situation, where the choir could get to me so easily. 

In the gospel the crowd senses that Jesus is a little put off by their question, so they try to ask a “better” question and get his approval. “What must we do - to do the works God requires?” In this moment, the level of sincerity jumps up. 

We all know these moments, when the tone gets serious. You call your brother - to tell him that your parent’s health has taken a turn for the worse. The chairperson of the congregation shares with the Sunday morning crowd that the Bank is losing patience with late loan payments. A multi-generation family in congregational leadership, announces that they are all moving to the Carolina’s. We all know that change in voice that calls us to take a giant step up to another level of attention. 

Jesus thrives in those teaching moments. The teaching moment is when the crowd turns to Jesus and asks a serious question - that has a direct impact on who they are and what they are to be doing. This is a question asked when they NEED an answer, AND they are ready to hear it. 

Jesus says, “You all need to believe in me and the word from God that I bring.” And they ask, “Do you have a sign from heaven to prove this is really from God? Moses gave the Hebrews manna in the desert.” You know what manna means right? It is Hebrew for, “what is this yucky stuff?” If you recall the story, the Hebrews did not especially like that manna in the desert, until it was a memory - and they were out of the desert. 

One of my favorite characteristics of the gospel of John is how he continually reveals that spirituality is related to the life force in the world and associates it with the God revealed by Jesus. Hunger, compassion, and faithfulness, all reflect the force of life in the world.  

In October we talked about faith like a mustard seed. Tiny though it is, it contains all of the stuff needed, to both sprout, and to develop into a mustard tree. All of the special code is written within the seed. Once the seed sprouts, the seed casing decomposes, and the life force is now in the plant. It grows leaves, collects sunshine and water, and grows and bears fruit - or mustard seeds. 

This is the same life force that causes dandelions to grow and bloom, right in the cracks of the sidewalk. It is a perfect dandelion. It has dandelion leaves, and dandelion roots, and the distinctive yellow dandelion blossom, that soon enough turns to floating wisps that carry the seeds of new weeds - to grow right where you had hoped to grow something more beautiful, or useful. 

Jesus lays claim to being the very life force, sent down from God, to give a rich spiritual life to those who would be willing to claim it. What is a rich spiritual life? 

I am one who believes that God created the world, in ways that are beyond my imagination. I believe the unique code of the life force that every living creature carries, reflects the life of our Creator. I believe, in some way, every created thing reveals the Creator, in some advanced mysterious way, just as the concept of the Trinity tries to put a bow on the complexity of a multifaceted understanding of God. 

As a human and a Christian, I am well versed in the scriptures that lay claim to the spiritual heritage of the Christians, and the Jewish people of faith - whose awareness of their relationship with God has shaped my understanding of creation, the life force in the world, and the Creator. 

The life force in each of us, might even be imagined as not only an image of the Creator, but we might consider our spiritual souls as a bit of that divine stuff. And divine stuff is eternal. And divine stuff, flows from God, and returns to God. While we live and breathe - and do our good and evil - in these lovely, biodegradable bodies, the real stuff of our eternal natures, does not die and cannot be anything but loved by God and reflect the love of our Creator. 

So tonight, we look at each other and look for the spark of the divine - that is always more accessible when people of faith are joined together. We recognize the presence of God - the real stuff of a rich spiritual life - in the love we have for each other. We recognize our divine nature in our normal human desire to feed each other good things - and see the pleasure in each other’s face. We give thanks to God. 

I give thanks to God for the life force that inhabits our biodegradable bodies, though I wish it would wait to degrade until after I am finished using it. I give thanks for the life force that draws us near to Jesus, wanting to get his approval. I give thanks for the spiritual hunger that causes us to ask the questions that go deeper, or raise our attention to a higher level. 

Most of all, let us give thanks to God for a spiritual awareness, that permits us to resist the artificial pressure - to create a perfect Christmas in the model of the ideal Hallmark Moment; but see it in the Christmas season, the light of the eternal. We name and address our hunger for the spiritual food that is preserved within the faith of our parents and grandparents, that we dutifully try to share with our kids and grandkids. 

Jesus fed the 5,000, walked on water to inspire the disciples, and talked with the confused followers. They are trying to comprehend who this Jesus is and what he is about. And those of us who know these stories, still want to be reminded, “What do I need to do to please God?” 

Jesus says. “I am the bread of life.” And we proclaim in all sincerity, “Give us this bread always.” Let this be the bread - in the boxes of food we will deliver to the pantry. Let this be the bread - in the stuffing of our Thanksgiving turkey, or better yet, let this be the bread and butter - of our earnest intentions to love our neighbor, near and far. Amen.